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Vet Talks Pets: Preventing and Treating Equine Colic


By Sheila Fitzpatrick, DVM

Colic is abdominal upset in a horse. Because a horse cannot physically vomit, gas and acid, as well as foodstuffs, can become off balance.

There are many different types of colic, with the most common being gas (or spasmodic) colic, impaction colic or a combination of both.

How do you know your horse is suffering from colic and what causes it?

If you notice your horse is hanging around the food but just not eating, you need to call your veterinarian! Other signs are rolling, thrashing, looking at one side or the other, pawing, thrashing the tail or even just standing off away from other horses.

The first vital signs to check in your horse if you suspect colic are gum color, heart rate, gut sounds and temperature.

The gums of a horse should be a pink color. If they are pale, this means poor perfusion or blood flow. If they are red, the horse could be toxic or even have a perforation of the bowel.

The gums should also feel moist; that means the horse is hydrated. If they are dry or tacky, it can mean the horse has an issue. If the gums turn white where you press, count how many seconds before the color returns. Ideally, it should take 3 seconds for the color in the gums to return.

The heart rate of a horse ideally should be below 40. You can measure the heart rate by feeling up under the armpit, or by feeling the pulse on the inside of the lower mandible. A heart rate above 80 signifies surgical colic, and 40-60 at rest signifies you have a potential problem.

The gut sounds of a horse are indicative of the motility of the bowel. When a horse suffers from colic, often times they develop an “ileus,” where the bowel actually stops or slows down significantly. By putting your head up to the side of the flank of the horse on both sides, you should be able to hear loud gas sounds every few seconds. If you hear nothing, you have an emergency.

Finally, a horse’s temperature should be between 98 and 100 degrees. Low temperatures indicate toxicity in the horse, and high temperatures can indicate inflammation or infection.

Causes of colic are many. Most commonly, sudden changes in feed, not enough water access, lack of drinking in general, eating off the ground where they can ingest a lot of sand and parasites all can play a factor.

How can you help prevent colic?

Don’t change the feed suddenly, e.g. don’t go from grass hay to a lush green pasture. Transition your horse slowly.

Always have water available, and if you are traveling, take some of the water from home so the horse recognizes the taste of that water.

Do routine fecal inspections on your horse for parasites. Always feed her from feeders and always have a salt and/or mineral block available.

How do you treat colic?

Most commonly, you should start with a veterinary exam to assess what type of colic your horse has and if it is a surgical colic or if it can be treated medically. Most horses are given pain relievers, intravenous fluids and electrolytes, with continued pain management until clinical signs resolve.

If the horse has a torsion, which means the bowel is twisted or out of place (called displaced), then surgery is the only option other than humane euthanasia.

Just remember what to watch for, and don’t wait! Call your veterinarian when you see any of these signs.

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